In the Pacific Island nation of Vanuatu, home and land are tied strongly to culture and tradition.
With 98 per cent of land owned by customary ni-Vanuatu landowners, according to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), village relocation poses a significant threat to culture and identity.
This threat is impending.
In early December, Climate Change Minister Ralph Regenvanu announced that the rising threat of climate-related disasters means planning to relocate dozens of villages has become the country’s focus.
“Climate displacement of populations is the main feature of our future,” Mr Regenvanu told AFP news.
“We have to be ready for it and plan for it now.”
Mr Regenvanu said dealing with the impacts of global warming would devastate Vanuatu’s 300,000 inhabitants who live on a chain of islands strung out between Australia and Fiji.
“It’s going to be a huge challenge and a huge tragedy for many people who would have to leave their ancestral land to move to other places, but that’s the reality,” he said.
Home is where it begins
As the ni- Vanuatu population continues to feel the impacts of 2020’s cyclone Harold, its 11th category five tropical cyclone, the idea of relocation will cause heartache for many.
Gloria Gislapn, a market stall owner in Port Vila, said customary land was entrenched in Vanuatu’s way of life.
“Home and land are part of our culture. It’s part of our tradition,” Ms Gislapn said.
“For example, you buy land, you buy land from the government, and the government has to give you a title for it.
“It’s the only land you own, and it’s from your ancestors. It’s given to you by inheritance.”
Ms Gislapn was originally from Ambae, an island whose all 11,000 inhabitants evacuated due to a volcanic eruption in 2017.
She has first-hand experience with the challenges of displacement and the emotional struggles that come with relocating to a new island.
“It’s more sadness. A lot of people cry. They feel bad,” Ms Gislapn said.
“They feel they don’t feel good about it when you talk about it, moving to another place.
“If you stay back home, you live the lifestyle of your culture and tradition, but when you move to a different island, that island has its own culture and tradition.”
Learning the language and fitting into a new community, Ms Gislapn said, is extremely challenging.
“You have to learn to respect or to work with the community there,” Ms Gislapn said.
In the aftermath of Ambae’s volcanic eruption, Dr Jimmy Obed, Vanuatu’s only psychiatrist, has also witnessed the anguish of relocation due to natural disasters.
“There was a lot of distress understandably, among people from the island because they had to move back,” Dr Obed said.
He recalled visiting a village close to the volcano to provide awareness and psychosocial support.
“The villagers were saying that the chief from the village was saying that the way it was conducted, the government just went and said, “Okay, we have to leave that place and go”,” Dr Obed said.
“There were two attempts for evacuation during that eruption.
“The first one, everybody left and then they went back to the island.
“The second time they did the evacuation, people were very reluctant to go because obviously for cultural reasons.”
But home doesn’t just symbolise culture.
As Dr Obed explains, it contributes to the overall well-being of the Ni-Vanuatu people.
“There was a wellness study on what is well-being according to the people of Vanuatu, and so a lot of it has to do with your ability to access customary value items that you can practice your customs. A lot of it is tied to earth and place. So, when you take people out of those ties, you have those stresses that come.”Dr Jimmy Obed
While the Vanuatu Government focuses on evacuating its population, the case of cyclone Harold exposes the inescapable truth about natural disasters and their impact on mental health.
“We were part of the response team that went up during cyclone Harold, and even I was shocked at the amount of violence,” Dr Obed said.
“We had reports of elderly people being abused and trying to get help during times of disaster.
“There are a lot of all of those things that would increase the stress levels inside our community happening.”
These effects aren’t limited to Vanuatu.
The latest study released by the Australian Institute of Family Studies into the true impact of natural disasters on the mental health of Australian Men found one in four men reported being impacted mentally by recent natural disasters.
In a media statement, lead researcher Karlee O’Donnell said the study highlighted the importance of support in the aftermath of a natural disaster.
“It’s critical that we understand the full spectrum of support these men need to recover, with support going well beyond financial assistance or the immediate clean-up, but extending mental health recovery as well,” Ms O’Donnell said.
The report also examined men’s barriers to accessing mental health services following natural disasters.
The only person in the arena
As the only psychiatrist in an 83-island nation, Dr Obed understands mental health barriers all too well.
“But within the ministry of health, where I work, we don’t have data,” he said.
“We have yet to do any studies around it because mental health services have only recently been set up as a department in 2014.”
Dr Obed said described the issue of mental health as “fairly new” in Vanuatu.
“But in terms of the understanding of mental health, and I think just recently after the COVID [pandemic], people are beginning to see the importance of mental health and what mental health is,” Dr Obed said.
In addition to mental health effects after a natural disaster, constant exposure to natural disasters in Vanuatu has created a climate-resilient society ready to adapt to the forces of mother nature.
But Dr Obed said the ni-Vanuatu people’s pride in being resilient has created a barrier to seeking clinical services after a natural disaster.
He said the ni-Vanuatu population takes pride in being resilient, causing an issue of covering up emotions.
“You might think people will see you as weak if you are not resilient,” Dr Obed said.
“It also creates a barrier for people to speak out if they’re going through some mental health issues and things like that and more so [for] people who are vulnerable, like people with disability,” Dr Obed said.
The Resilience Paradox
However, for residents like Ms Gislapn, being resilient means being part of and continuing a compassionate culture, even if it means losing a home.
She said helping one another is indicative of moral character. Therefore, the emphasis isn’t on a particular home but on preserving culture.
“One thing about Vanuatu is people from Vanuatu are very resilient,” Ms Gislapn said.
“We’re very good at sharing. When you don’t share in our culture, we know there’s something wrong with you. You’re not a good person. “
“They don’t mind if they lose their house. They know they can build another house,”
Not only do the ni-Vanuatu people take pride in their ability to withstand climate change’s effects, but they are also instinctive.
Climate Change Ministry Acting Director Johnny Tari said traditional knowledge helped the ni-Vanuatu people better prepare and cope with a natural disaster.
“It’s something that people are already aware of and trying to cope with those different changes, and rain to integrate into the local personal calendars,” Mr Tari said.
Established in 2019, the Climate Change Ministry in Vanuatu is a relatively new department focused on working alongside various stakeholders to address climate change.
“One of the main mandates for this department is to spread the gospel of climate change, explicitly with adaptation and mitigation awareness, and especially focusing on tangible measures to cope with climate change,” Mr Tari said.
“I think one of the most important things about this department is to work more closely with the stakeholders, the agricultural sectors and fisheries, forestry, to integrate, or to mainstream climate change into those sectors and reducing the impacts of climate change.”
As the Vanuatu government takes the lead on climate change communication, Dr Obed hoped the potential loss of land from natural disasters would pave the way for a disaster response that includes mental health.
“The reason we’re making a lot of noise is not only because we are losing our land, but how that is tied to the people, tied to the stress levels of the well-being of the people,” he said.
“The government is slowly coming around to seeing the importance of including mental health in a lot of these things like disaster response, and things like that.
“At the moment, I see a lot of emphasis on all the other things that affect the social context, but the link to the mental health aspect of it still needs more strengthening.”
Dr Obed was optimistic about Minister Ralph Regenvanu’s new role as minister for climate change.
“We’re looking forward to having a sit down with him and seeing how we can use that platform to strengthen this networking with other ministries with mental health,” he said.
It is not the size that counts but the strength of the spirit
As the most at-risk country for natural disasters enters another cyclone season, the focus for Mr Regenvanu’s department is the legal recognition from the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to future-proof small island nations like Vanuatu against the effects of climate change.
“One of the main reasons for Vanuatu attending COP 27 is the ICJ, the International Court of Justice, they’re trying to get some views and opinions from other countries on how climate change is affecting the small island states,” Mr Tari said.
With last-minute negotiations for “loss and damage” at COP 27 this year, a fund that will help developing countries vulnerable to the effects of climate change seek support for losses arising from natural disasters, governments like Vanuatu continue to fight to keep its population safe.
As for everyday residents like Ms Gislapn, they will continue to wait and be ready for the next round of natural disasters.
“Life is like a cycle,” Ms Gislapn said.
“Maybe it will be your turn to suffer, but these people will stand beside you to help you.”